Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (PC) review
"Buck Rogers: Countdown to doomsday was my favorite RPG in the age of the Mega Drive (AKA Sega Genesis), mostly because it was non-linear in a console where what few RPGs there were available followed the Japanese style of linear and character-centered gameplay. After more than 10 years, I discovered that the explanation behind this was that Buck Rogers first started as an American PC RPG that was pretty much like most American PC RPGs. "
Buck Rogers: Countdown to doomsday was my favorite RPG in the age of the Mega Drive (AKA Sega Genesis), mostly because it was non-linear in a console where what few RPGs there were available followed the Japanese style of linear and character-centered gameplay. After more than 10 years, I discovered that the explanation behind this was that Buck Rogers first started as an American PC RPG that was pretty much like most American PC RPGs.
OK, so what does that mean? To me, it means that "Buck Rogers" epitomizes, in some ways, what old-school RPG gaming was all about in the late 80s and early 90s. If you loved it, you shall have a catharsis playing this, and if you don't love it or you don't know if you love it or not, then you probably won't have a catharsis.
Your characters here are created by the player and their evolution as humans (or as bio-altered 'gennies') is not really the focus of this game. No love story for you here. Instead, the narrative of this game is all about the interesting scenario and epic situations: this is the 25th century, and the things you shall meddle with are quite grand in scope indeed.
In "Buck Rogers", humanity has not mastered a way to travel beyond the speed of light, which means that space colonization is somewhat restricted to the realm of space between the Sun and Jupiter. However, what mankind has not developed in terms of hyperdrives, they did in biotechnology: Venus and Mars have been terraformed, and exploration of the rich resources of these planets plus mercury and the asteroids near jupiter has made planet Earth seem a little not-exciting in comparison.
But the 25th century is utopian for some, and cyberpunk-ish for others: governments have pretty much been ditched in favor of rule by greedy corporations. One of these, RAM (the Russo-American Mercantile) has all but conquered Mars and rules the planet with an iron fist. And, since profit is the name of the game, RAM will do anything, ANYTHING, to increase monthly returns, including polluting the Earth to the point of giving terrans a +1 Constitution bonus because their bodies are so resistant to toxins now. Weaker terrans are pretty much dead already.
It is in this universe that your party of 6 terrans, mercurians, venusians, martians, or mutant desert runners (human-lion hybrids) and tinkers (human-lemur hybrids) will strive to protect. To do so, you shall fight alongside NEO, a NGO of sorts whose purpose is basically not letting Earth get even more toxic. You will have to tilt the balance of large field battles between NEO and RAM in favor of your side. You will explore derelict ships which, as you will son find, harbor mutants that are supposed to take the place of terrans in RAM's evil scheme. You will infiltrate RAM bases in disguise and have to contend with monster infestations inside them. You will fight lots of monsters, courtesy of bioengineering, in the Venusian swamps. And, finally, you will have to work your way diplomatically among corrupt mercurian officials so that you may dismantle a giant laser just before it fires.
The experience is never short of epic: the politics in the solar system shape a scenario that truly seems ripe for quite an adventure. Exploring this gameworld is a must for defeating RAM's sinister plot, and to do so you will eventually be able to use a starship (that you must capture first) to travel among the planets, fight smugglers and pirates, destroy precious RAM cargoships, and basically scrounge up valuable equipment to fight your enemies in better shape.
And fight your enemies you will indeed! Here is where the total retro-ness of this game shows up: this is a battle-intensive game, so much that it might just as well be labeled a Strategy title as much as an RPG. Legions and legions of RAM troops will try to bar your way to victory. Monsters ranging from Orcs to Dragons (the developers thank bioengineering for allowing them to put fantasy monsters in the 25th century) will have to be put down.
This game uses AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) rules, AD&D stats, the scenario was developed by AD&D's company and this game port was developed by the company that made most AD&D ports back in the early 90's. So, is this AD&D in space? You bet! The only difference is that instead of swords and sorcery, laser guns and grenades will be your weapons of choice. But still, expect lots of dungeon crawling, spiraling labyrinths full of traps, legions of enemies and monsters to be beaten, and gold and jewels (OK, credits) as your rewards for victory.
There is a skill system in this game where you give skill points to your characters so that they may do stuff that is not combat-related. However, all major quests here can be solved by fighting, fighting, and fighting. Using skills such as 'repair' and 'bypass security' will help you in some points, but the end result will inevitably be the same: either your use of the skill will give you some nifty weapon, or it will reduce the number of battles you'll be forced to fight (though you will have to always fight some). Thus, prepare to fight a lot.
(There is a good thing about this: you don't have to worry so much about "lacking that essential skill you needed in the end" in this game, meaning that pretty much any party can win the game if it fights well enough.)
Fights here are much more elaborate than in most J-Rpgs of the time which you may or may not be familiar with: you can't just press attack and attack and expect to win (OK, sometimes you might), no: you will have to move your characters strategically so that grenade shrapnel doesn't hit everyone at once, you will have to choose to neutralize the poisonous monsters before they hit your party with their deadly stings, you will have at all times to protect your medic if you want to have enough HP to live through the next battle. This eternal battling did sort of grow on me as I played on: every time I was about to press that self-destruct button, or when I finally was about to complete the great project I helped organize along with freed mutant slaves, I could expect that soon enough an enemy would try a last stand against my impending victory and an epic battle of mythic proportions would ensue, and once again my characters would go into the fray and fight for the lives of fragile Earth.
And to add to the utter retro-ness in the game, the interface is a bit clunky. It's not user un-friendly or hard to decipher, but it does not lend well to the repetitive actions you sometimes will have to undertake. This is one of those games that will lend themselves well to those who find pleasure in X-COM base micromanagement: whenever you want to change weapons, aim strategically a explosive grenade, or try using intimidation instead of weapons to beat a certain foe, you will have to wade through a few menus and change some small settings. It's not a big deal in the start of the game, but it will be by the end when the best weapon to kill a certain monster changes during the course of the same battle.
In the end, here's what this game will boil down to: some will feel that the constant battles with monsters from outer space in large grid-like maps are representations of epic wars fought for the sake of the planet Earth, and some will feel this is mindless grinding and repetition. Some will like the many strategic choices and cool ways to kill foes that erupt during a battle, and others will find tiring that they have to reload manually their rocket launchers after every single battle. Some will marvel at the interesting web of intrigue and veiled interests in the cyberpunk solar system of the 25th century, and others will be unsatisfied that their characters seem so bland compared to the offerings of other RPGs.
In short, "Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday" is a great offering for the retro gamer who likes its RPGs to be to the point and challenging. If you prefer games that tell a more personalized story and explore the depths of characters development in more detail, this might not be the title for you.
As the score I give can attest, I'm in the first category of gamers I described.
PS: This game was also ported to the Sega Genesis. If you have to choose between one these two versions to play, I'd recommend the Genesis version: It has improved ship vs ship combat and boarding, and it's interface is a bit less cluttered than in the PC version. The Genesis version may have less choices of weapons and skills to pick, but to be honest the guys who ported the game to the console wisely chose the 'near useless' items to remove from the cartridge.
Community review by zanzard (August 22, 2009)
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